A methodological approach that combines the psychology of distributed cognition with a close reading of Senleches’s Je me merveil / J’ay pluseurs fois suggests a new cultural role for song in the later fourteenth century.
Mary Carruthers’s new edited volume Rhetoric Beyond Words: Delight and Persuasion in the Arts of the Middle Ages has just been published by Cambridge University Press. It contains my essay ‘Nature’s Forge and Mechanical Production: Writing, Reading, and Performing Song’, which attempts to suggest a new way of viewing the relations between medieval songs and their original performers. Using the image of the forge as a way of thinking about artistic creativity, and the modern concept of distributed cognition (cognition when a process that necessitates collaboration involves a hierarchical structure of individuals, using external objects to represent things difficult to represent mentally), it argues that part of song’s important cultural work was done among singers in rehearsal.
The paper focuses its initial efforts through one of the central metaphors of making (i.e. artistic creativity) in the Middle Ages: the forge or smithy. Initial subsections discuss ‘Memory, the forge, inventio and the mechanical’ and ‘Creation and procreation: the moral ambiguity of memory’ before the article focuses on a single song by Jacob Senleches, that uses the forge image centrally: the double balade, Je me merveil / J’ay pluseurs foys. Sections here are entitled ‘Senleches (& Co.) as the hammer of the amateur’, ‘Forging song’, and ‘Forging irony?’. Full texts and (new) translations for the song are offered. Engaging with earlier analyses by Gilles Dulong and Anne Stone, my own analysis of the song concludes that
Far from criticizing his compositional rivals, Senleches’ song addresses the relationship between forging a song in writing as a composer and forging a song in sound as a singer—a relationship mediated by notation—in a period when the memory was a machine for invention, the mechanical was positively human, and being someone’s instrument was a culturally approved career choice. In short, I suggest that a song is less an object than a collaborative rhetorical process which binds the composer, notation, singers and listeners within a machine, whose workings—when going well—should mirror in sonic ratios those that medieval thinkers posited in the heavens.
A final section (‘Musical notes as memorial notae’) relates the reading to a concept in modern psychology that has recently been used fruitfully in studies of rehearsal in Renaissance theatre, where the performers similarly worked from individual parts—the idea of ‘distributed cognition’.
Link to the full text of this article. Published as Elizabeth Eva Leach, “Nature’s Forge and Mechanical Production: Writing, Reading, and Performing Song,” in Rhetoric Beyond Words: Delight and Persuasion in the Arts of the Middle Ages, ed. Mary Carruthers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 72-95. © Cambridge University Press 2010. Reprinted with permission.
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